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Habenero Pepper

Fiery Foods: Habaneros Revisited
Cooking With Habanero Chiles

by

Until just a few short weeks ago, my experience with the habanero chile was strictly third hand. And I didn't mind keeping it that way, really, since I had it in my head that the super-hot chile phenomenon was more or less a macho, are-you-tough-enough-to-eat-what-I-eat kind of thing.

The habanero (it means "from Havana"), we know, is reputedly 30 to 50 times hotter than the jalapeo. Now, I am really fond of jalapeos. I love their flavor and their heat (eat a whole, pickled jalapeo, and your mouth will sing). But I could not imagine anything 50 times as hot as a jalapeo. These little lantern-shaped chiles, the books tell me, have a wonderful, distinctive flavor with tropical fruit tones and that the ripe habanero is even sweeter with a more developed fruitiness. Yeah, right. And Jolly Rancher is adding a habanero candy to their mix.

Clearly, I didn't buy the "tropical fruit tones" business, and just decided that I could live the rest of my life without first-hand knowledge of habaneros.



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Recently, however, I attended the Chile Fever Festival in San Antonio. As a matter of fact, Texas Cooking had a booth at the show and, anyone who knows anything about trade shows knows that time can hang heavy on your hands during the slow hours. So there was plenty of opportunity to visit the food booths and sample the wares.

What I discovered is this: That incredible flavor does exist. And it is possible to savor it without doing damage to the inside of your mouth. The key word is proportion.

Habaneros seem to pair very well with foods containing fruit. I very gingerly tried some Habanero-Peach Preserves from the Cibolo Junction Food & Spice Co., Albuquerque, New Mexico (800)683-9628. The first flavor my taste buds discerned was peachy and sweet. Very nice. [One Mississippi. Two Mississippi.] Then it blew through me like wind off an Amarillo parking lot in August and, strangely enough, I don't mean that in an unpleasant way. Yes, there was some spicy heat there (the mouth sings!), but there was also an almost tangible warmth that was as much felt as tasted. Sounds pretty dramatic for just a little bite of preserves, right?

Well, I was impressed. And I not only went on to try out many foods containing habaneros (Salsa Gold, for instance, from the Prima Group, Inc., San Antonio, Texas (210)271-9294), but I started working on some recipes, as well.

The first recipe, Habanero-Peach Glazed Ham, calls for the same preserves I tasted in San Antonio, and I have included contact information in case your store doesn't carry them. The second recipe, Black Beans Habanero, is a wonderful melange of vegetables and spices. If you are timid, as I was, about these chiles, start out by using half the quantity called for in the recipe.

And if you are curious as to just how hot habaneros really are, cut just the tiniest sliver from a habanero and put it on your tongue. Your curiosity will be satisfied, but not your appetite for these flavorful chiles.

As always, be very careful when handling habaneros. My strong recommendation is that you use surgical gloves from the drugstore and, whatever you do, do not touch your eyes or anywhere else on your or anybody else's face while working with these chiles.

And remember, dairy products, not water, will turn off the habanero heat more quickly than anything else, especially milk, sour cream or cream cheese.


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